Hunting for wasps and chickens – Bats, Birds and the elusive Galliwasp

My week on Montserrat was busy – I had to meet the various teams of environment department workers who were responsible for the different biodiversity programmes.  I was to meet an old friend of mine, Laverne, who almost single handedly had introduced and fostered use of GIS on Montserrat.  And I wanted to get a grip on the species I was looking at.

The biodiversity action plan was to focus on endemic species in the Central Hills.  My colleagues from Kew Gardens were getting a good handle on the plant species – had conducted transects across the hills and were finding new species almost all the time.  I had a quick job to manipulate their existing data into a format that could be transferred to their master database in London.  There was a guy called Steve who I started referring to as the batman; he was crazy about bats and had a complicated way of recording all his information.  The island conservation team more or less let him get on with it.  Bats are one of the few land mammals in the Caribbean that are endemic – given the chain reaches out in the ocean there are not many other ways to extend your species’ range unless you fly.  The result is that there are several endemic species and subspecies of bats in all the islands and Montserrat is no exception. I chatted with the batman a couple of times by email  but there did not seem much point in changing the way he did things for the sake of local conditions.

Then there were the birds.  I worked with Geoff from RSPB to decide how we would best tackle this.  I showed him the seabird databases I had developed in the South Atlantic, but we agreed this was a different case.  Here they were not trying to count every bird on a rocky outcrop, but to try and sample some shy species in forest undergrowth; most notably the Montserrat Oriole whose numbers had declined sharply after the eruptions.


The Centre Hills from our village

The two other species of interest were different.  The first was an enigma.  It was like hunting the snark, like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat …. that isn’t there.  It was the Montserrat galliwasp.  A galliwasp is not, as you might imagine, a kind of insect, but a lizard.  For a smooth lizard it is slightly flattened, wide bodied even.  My description is all from books.  I didn’t see a galliwasp in the week I was there.  In fact it had been several years since anyone had seen a galliwasp.  The last time had been about five years ago and the poor creature in questions was in the jaws of a small dog so was not going to do anything to relieve its critically endangered species status.

So I designed a database that was to do a couple of things; one was allow anyone to log reports of people seeing a galliwasp – whether being eaten or not at the time.  The second was that a series of remarkably complex study sites were being set up to see if they could attract galliwasps in to be studied.  I never saw one of these sites themselves but it was described to me in great detail.  They sliced up the site into segments of long grass and short grass, corrugated iron they could hide under, scrubby vegetation.  I was to create a complex database that would describe all the habitats and the number of galliwasps of what sex, age, length and height.  All this for something which had not been seen alive for a generation.

Into the Jungle – An afternoon paddle

We’d arrived back at the camp earlier than expected because we had missed the final village stop.  The sun had broken out and the air was lighter than it had been all day, a slight breeze taking the worst of the humidity away. We had some options; relax in our accommodations, go for a walk, or, as one of the forest wardens was keen for us to do, take a trip in a canoe down the river.  I could do the other two any time; I was not going to miss a canoe trip for the world.

The scene in the camp was as tranquil as could be, only the ladies preparing our evening meal gave any hint at activity, and they worked slowly and methodically at their tasks.  After all, they still had three hours to go before dinner time.  I went and changed out of my formal field clothes (long trousers and a polo shirt) and put on some swimming shorts and a t shirt and we followed the tall gangly warden, carrying a paddle, down to the waterfront.  Adjoining the washing area we had used in the morning, two canoes were wedged onto the mud beside the river, a red fibreglass one and a wider metal one.  Myself and Anne, from USAID in Ghana, took the metal one with the warden paddling, and Hugo and my US Geological Survey colleague, Gray, took sole charge of the other one.  We gently eased out into the channel and for the first time I looked at the small cataract upriver from the camp.  I had heard the gushing in the night but now I saw the full extent.  Although the drop was only about 5m over a succession of boulders, the width of the river here was significant so the overall effect was impressive even thought the wet season had only just commenced.

I decided I would help the warden to paddle back, to help me get some exercise as much as anything, but I wanted free hands to take photographs as we headed down.  To start with it was just nice to get used to the motion of the canoe, gently going with the flow, and looking at the thick green forest either side.  It was interesting to note that this dense forest is never wide, even before humans starting hacking away at it, but probably only extended in a handful of trees before the amount of water in the ground was insufficient to supply huge trees.   The land beyond is a less dense scrubby woody savannah.

The afternoon was growing old and as we progressed we started to detect more activity.  The flies were always with us when we got close to the shore, but they were less prevalent out in the water, although you saw a few butterflies struggling to get across this open space without tiring or being caught.We saw some plops in the water as fish started jumping for the flies that were out on the river.  Birds were moving about in the shadows of the trees.

In theory the park was on our left and should have been pristine, but early on at several points we could see a dugout canoe moored in the mud, and here and there on the banks some vegetable crops or the odd manmade fence.  No doubt people were nibbling away at the park’s resources.  In some places the clearings were blatant as instead of the thickly vegetated fringes, the trees hanging low over the water’s edge, we could see the bank and exposed soil, and maybe here or there the odd large tree chopped down.

A Tale of Two Swamps – The appeal of a swamp

The most intriguing environment in Africa to me is the swamp.  In this enormous continent there is such a variety of landscapes, but as I have mentioned elsewhere those landscapes are huge and much is monotonous – miles and miles of Bloody Africa or MMBA.  Whether it be the long expanses of desert across the Sahara, the Sahelian, East African or Southern African Savannahs, the thick humid forests that stretch from Guinea in the west down to Congo, Angola and Uganda; it can all look a bit samey.

There are, though,  oases of alternative landscapes in Africa – the volcanic areas with its deep rifts and conical mountains, the highland plateaus with their cooler air and temperate vegetation.  Of course the Finbos in the southern tip is remarkable, the Atlas mountains and Mediterranean coast varied.  My favourite without a doubt, where Africa livens up,  is when there is clean fresh water all year round in a semi-arid zone.  The Great Lakes are superb inland seas, the great rivers like the Zambezi and the Nile bring life to parched ground.

Less well known and hidden away are the swamp lands.  The most famous of these is the Okavango Delta, where a great river from the highlands of Angola spreads over a near flat plain before disappearing on a geological fault as the desert finally wins back the water to the sky.  But there are hundreds of smaller swamplands dotted all over sub Saharan Africa.  The word swamp conjures up a lot of negative imagery; African Queen with Humphrey Bogart hauling his boat through reeds and becoming covered in leeches.  Deep muddy holes, crocodiles and hippos at every turn and of course infestation by biting, malarial mosquitoes.

Apart from Humphrey Bogart and the African Queen, yes these elements do exist here, but these watery landscapes are also hugely biodiverse and productive.  The legions of invertebrates swimming, crawling and flying around the swamp are bountiful food sources for animals higher up the food chain, as well as the ever present vegetation providing limitless grazing for the herbivores.  So the bird life here is as incredible as anywhere in the world, a range of antelope specialise in plodding through sodden grasslands, others wallow in the water.  And in its turn, the rivers, lakes and flooded reed beds provide the perfect habitat for an immense amount  of fish.


There is something about a swamp

The Other Mauritius -Hit by a tornado of cleaning

Interestingly some of the other birds learnt from this too; some of the more confident sparrows would hop over and take bread from your hand, some would flutter in but often they were too clumsy to take the bread from your hands, and the amount of scrabbling around often made me drop the bread before they had a chance to grab it.

In the end we had to stop feeding the birds.  One morning Mike saw me dish out half a baguette on the floor and he observed that the birds we had been feeding were a lot larger than they were when we started.  In fact some were positively obese.  An occasional bit of starchy dough may not harm them but these birds had been supersizing at the fast food joint of our project for a couple of months.  The sparrows could hardly hop about any more.  OK that is an exaggeration but their little torsos were severely swollen.  Of course when we stopped we got lots of squawking and complaining like a spoilt brat who has met their strict uncle.  Within a couple of days the rabble of 50 or so birds we had built up started to disperse in the mornings, then they would not even bother to turn up, and we were reduced to a handful of hopeful sparrows and pigeons and the odd fody.

This pleased the cleaner no end.  Mike had hired her through our landlord when he first arrived.  He said he had no intention to spend his weekends cleaning up after the rest of the project team and the project could afford about £10 a week to get someone in.  Sarah was already in a routine by the time I arrived and I got caught out the first Saturday morning when she arrived.  She never smiled.  She barely said a word.  She would walk in up the driveway, deposit her sandals on the step next to the car port, plop her small bag down on our dining table and get started.  As is my habit, I had left various items around the house where I had stopped using them; a set of papers on the table, my binoculars on a window ledge, my computer bag on the floor.  I was sitting in the car port tapping away at the laptop as usual.  It got a bit difficult to concentrate as Sarah started crashing around in the kitchen, cleaning up the dirty dishes from our late dinner the night before, dumping the wine bottles and scouring the surfaces.  Worse was to come.  I was sitting in the centre of the car port, with the French windows behind me.  She nearly scared me out of my skin when she emptied a bucket of water out on to the driveway from within the French windows.  I was equally started when she chucked a huge plastic  bag of refuse onto the grass for her to put in the dumpster later.  I heard her pummelling the cushions on the sofa to within an inch of their lives.  She’d scrape chairs around the room to locate those pesky bits of dust that tried to hide from her.  She started cleaning the floors, but not for her a damp mop, her method was to more or less sluice Noah’s Flood over the tiles then push the excess out in a tidal wave of pine fresh gunge.  Then she started on the car port.  I realised my life was in danger, so picked up the chair and carried it and the laptop into the garden under a shady tree.  I could not work at this point, I watched this wiry petit lady lay waste the dirt of the house, banishing it to the garden of oblivion forever.


Our modern but comfortable base

Just before she left, Mike came down from his room and gave her some rupees, and she soullessly picked up her limp bag, slipped on her sandals and clopped back down the driveway.

I took my chair back into the still sodden car port.  Mike grinned at me.  “You realise why we don’t stay down here when she comes round.  The only part of the house she never touches are our bedrooms.  So we lock ourselves in there when she is around or else you might get picked up and put out with the garbage.”

The Other Mauritius – Training the Bulbul

Of all the birds that graced our humble abode in Calodyne, my favourite by far was the bulbul.  Although common in Mauritius and elsewhere, it has such a distinctive shape and wonderful voice that it cannot be ignored.  It is a slender, sleek bird whose body plumage is off white, and its wings a brown to black mix.  It has a long thin beak and its head has two distinctive features, a long dark grey crest on a black and white head, and on each cheek a red flash.  This has given it its common name in many parts of the world; the Red Whiskered Bulbul.


Bulbul – still from a video

Its song is sweet and varied, and once detected, you realise it is one of the strongest singers in the community.  It has a long call which pierces through the air, and it can chunter away to you at close proximity too.

At first it seemed to come under the category of one of the shier birds.  It would observe from a nearby shrub, or at best sit on the furthest part of the car port wall.  If it was feeling bold it would swoop down at high speed and grab what it could before retreating to safety.

But I started to realise it was much more clever that than.  It was observing like many of the birds, yes, but it was also a quick learner.  He would see me holding the bread and breaking off a piece and he knew if he started his approach as I lifted my arm he would be first to dart in and scoop up the bread before the others had noticed what was happening.  He would then return to his favourite perch and watch my hand again.  I started to tempt him with holding the piece of bread up between thumb and forefinger.  I’d extend my arm out as far to the left.  The bird watched intently but could not summon the confidence to come and take it, but as soon as I released it he was over and caught it as it reached the floor.  Patiently I would repeat the exercise, again and again.  The bird each time would stare intently at the bread, sometimes would flap his wings ,obviously in two minds as to whether to come over or not.

It took a few days of trying.  One morning I was up earliest as usual and had spread around some of the bread that the sparrows and pigeons were now fighting for.  The bulbul appeared on its usual perch up in the eaves of the car port.  I ripped off a chunk of bread and held my arm out as far as I could reach.  He flew over, stabbed straight at the bread, turned on a sixpence and flew out into the garden.  I looked at my empty hands in astonishment.  There had hardly been time to experience the brush of his wings, the cool air flapped around my fingers and the vicious little tug as he took the bread away.  What is more, it had obviously astonished him in to shyness again and I did not see him back that breakfast.

When Mike emerged for his fag and coffee I smirked at him and told him what had just happened.  “What?” he exclaimed;  “I’ve been trying to get these fuckers to take bread from me for months!  I don’t believe you.  I have to see it.”

The bulbul did not return that day.  In fact he did not make an appearance for several more days and I began to wonder whether it had been a one off fluke.  Then one morning he did turn up again, fortuitously when Mike was sitting out on the port with me, one breakfast time.  I started the tempting process.  The bulbul hesitated, but this time not for long; he came across and grabbed the bread, this time with more precision and care and much less fear.

Mike was astonished, then sick with envy, then he smiled and said “good on you”.  What a privilege to have this incredibly beautiful and intelligent bird interact in such a way.  Eventually he took Mike into his confidence and allowed to be hand fed by him too.

The Other Mauritius – Pondering the life of birds

It was Mike that noticed something astonishing about the fody.  We noticed over a week or two that our fody was becoming ill.  It’s beautiful strident plumage was weakening, the red feathers were loosening and brown plumage was poking through from underneath.  He went missing for several days.  I thought we had lost him forever.

Mike, who spent many more months on the island than anyone else, was the one that worked it out.  One day I was munching on flakes and he pointed out an oddly shaped sparrow in amongst the rest of the flock.  He was thinner of body and the beak was a different colour.  Mike said – that is our fody and he looks healthy.   Apparently the males only have this wonderful cardinal red colour when they are breeding.  Once they lost it they looked like an ordinary dull brown bird.  And the females are that colour all year round.  It was quite possible that a couple of females had been in amongst the sparrows feeding all the time but we had never noticed it.  Towards the end of my time in Mauritius, I noticed our pet fody was starting to colour up once more ready for a new season of breeding.

It was a rare privilege to be so close to birds, albeit the slightly artificial surroundings of our starchy feeding station.  While I had always lived near gardens that contained bird feeders, we did not set them up within an arms distance of our observation posts.  Here the birds were flitting around at our feet, flying right past our noses.  You get to notice some things that you would generally not consider.  OK true, the life in our little compound was more boring than in some parts of the world, so you started to focus on minutiae, but I did discover something I had never considered before.



It was really a question I posed to myself.  How big does a bird have to be to stop hopping and start walking?  That is, when does the action of moving on the ground stop being a simultaneous action for two legs, and turns into our more familiar gait of one foot in front of the other.  The little sparrows were like clockwork toys.  On the ground they hop hop hopped everywhere.  If they wanted to turn, they gave a twitch of their wings, maybe a flutter here, but the legs just hopped up and down and could never change direction.  The fody did the same.  I was not so sure of the weaver birds, they did seem to hop occasionally but they also seemed large enough to be able to manage their legs separately.  The mynah walked like a lord in mourning suit, and the pigeons waddled their fat body so much from one side to the other ever time they lifted a step.  Which species did what?

The other things we noticed was that birds don’t mind crapping where they eat, and this became a big bugbear with the cleaner when she came round every Saturday.  More about here anon.

The Other Mauritius – Feeding time

The birds in the morning became a source of great pleasure.  Mike had started the feeding early on before I arrived in Mauritius.  We tended to buy baguettes fresh from the supermarket or local store, but we never ate it all in a day, and by the second morning the crust was hard, the inside starting to go stale and dry.  So we always bought a fresh loaf each day.   In fact we bought far too much but Mike’s approach was to go large rather than go hungry.  So he started breaking it up and putting it in the driveway, and as the birds started to increase in number and confidence, threw it on the car port floor itself.  I was happy to pick up the habit, and we often had a number of birds hanging around in the morning waiting for the feed; so much in expectation  that they would flutter and squeak at you once you opened the security gate as if in protest at the poor service standards.


Waiting for the baguettes

We had several types of birds come in.  Most numerous were the ubiquitous house sparrows who started appearing in ones or two’s – after  a few weeks there were over 25 regularly turning up in the morning.  We’d watch the squabbling, worked out families, saw flirtations.  All life was here.  A few periods we would see young fledglings come in with their mother.  They would stand on the sidelines squawking away while their mother would graze up the crumbs and fly up to feed them.  After a while they would chase their mother around the floor and she would give up and let them have some out of their food.  Finally they would see their noise was futile and after a couple of minutes of traipsing after their mother would realise the only way they would get a meal was if they picked it up themselves.

The fighting was tempestuous at times.  With all the other birds feeding away, two sparrows would come haring through the car port, screaming at the tops of their little voices.  We occasionally saw some ruthless bullying of a bird out in the garden – a whole mob bombing down on him with claws and beaks until, with a bit of luck, he could escape beyond their territories.

While not so numerous, the pigeons ate the most of the bread.  They would flock in to the driveway first, then circuitously wander round the garden as if the last things on their tiny minds was to have bread for breakfast, and then, if they thought you were not looking would come in to the car port and start to feed.  The whole coy effort was a charade; once close to the bread, very little could shoo them away again.  The only distraction was sex.  It seemed to be constantly on the minds of the males.  I found it impossible to distinguish the sexes of the pigeons until I saw the male pursuing the female round the car port.  They became so single minded that they would stomp on other birds, bump into their fellow pigeons feeding and even blunder into our chairs.  The females seemed almost permanently uninterested in any advances, indeed did everything to get away from these pests.  But they would coo and nod their heads and strut away with all the charm of an Essex boy at a disco.  And of course when they did manage to jump the female, the coital embrace lasted less than a second and he would be off in pursuit of another.  Didn’t seem worth it at all in my mind; although I was always taught about the birds and the bees, the bird way was so = fleeting.  At least it was better than the bees for the male; drones explode their insides on ejaculation with a queen bee and die.

The pigeons bullied the other birds not intentionally, just by their much larger size and blundering presence, so we tried to dissuade them and hope that some of the more interesting avian fauna would grace us with their presence.

The other Mauritius – Wild battle in tame surroundings

It was a grim thought as we watched it disappear under a croton in the garden.  But it was not the only case.  Even in our nicely clipped suburban garden in amongst these perfect little houses with different colour roofs, the harsh back and forth of the natural world would play out.  We came back from a meal out one night, having driven from the nearby village of Pereybere through a storm of rain and wind, sugar cane fronds, leaves and the occasional branch strewn across the coast road.  We turned into the relative calm of our compound and as the car swung into our driveway the headlights caught a bird perched on one of our chairs in the car port.  It was only an ordinary pigeon.  It made no attempt to move as the three of us approached it, its wing feathers were ruffled badly, its neck was exposed and its eyes looked fatigued.  It basically looked like a bird on its last legs.  Mike, often one of the most abrasive souls around, took an unusual pity on the poor creature.  He retrieved some peanuts and placed them on a table close to the chair on which the bird was perched.  He said “this wretch probably won’t get through the night”.    It must have been flying out in the storm, maybe got lost, maybe not able to land, possibly even battered by twigs and rain as it tossed and turned in the squally weather.  It looked like it had been fighting the wind for hours.  If anyone could ever show complete exhaustion, this was it.  We went to bed feeling rather sober.


The pool

Next morning we came down.  No pigeon in sight.  We all thought it had gone off into the bushes and died.  We’d started feeding the birds bits of leftover bread and birdseed and they were all waiting expectantly for us.  As we had breakfast a pigeon flew in.  It was bright and bouncy, fighting the other birds over the morsels of food scattered across the car port.  We noticed that its neck was straggly in the same way as the bird the night before.  It couldn’t be?  Really?  It looked very similar to be sure.  But this bird was as energetic as a six year old child at a birthday party.  How could it have recovered so much in so little time?  Mike was incensed.  He’d wasted a load of his sparing sympathy on this bird, not to mention a tin of nuts.  “I’ll wring the little bastard’s neck for taking me for granted” he shouted, but we were all relieved to see a happy outcome.

As far as you can go – Deadwood Plain

Longwood village sits at the end of a long road out of Jamestown (long by St Helena standards at about 7 miles) and is the gateway to some of the flattest land on the island.  To the north of the village is a large pastureland called Deadwood Plain, the biggest area of grass on the whole island.  Stuck on the edge of this plateau on a windy spot were three wind turbines, which marked St Helena’s first attempt at renewable energy.  In theory there were enough windy spots across the island that it could be self sufficient in this form, instead of from the oil powered generation done from Rupert’s Bay.  The problem was that being so small and so far away from the mainland, if you needed to replace parts or do maintenance, there was a limited amount that could be done quickly.  Bigger jobs took more specialist parts or expertise which could take weeks to deliver.


One of the wind turbines

Deadwood was also a location where you had one of the best chances of seeing the only endemic land bird.  The wirebird is a type of lapwing and prefers the open spaces of grassland.  It thus tends to avoids the dense vegetation in the highlands, and hated the stony ground round the coast, so its habitats were quite restricted.  One time I parked the car close to Longwood Gate and walked along a track across the plain towards one of the most iconic hills in St Helena.  Although not very tall in comparison with other peaks, it’s separation from other high ground and conical shape made Flagstaff a distinct peak that was an obvious navigation mark from the sea.  I assume its name derived from a practice of planting the union flag there in case the French ever decided to invade.  Once past the line of houses which sit just below the ridge of Deadwood Plain, I was exposed to the full force of the wind coming up from Rupert’s Valley.  No wonder the turbines had been placed here.  A couple of wirebirds fluttered up from the grass in front of me, but instead of flying to one side they came to rest just ahead of me, and within a few seconds were up in the air again.  Like many lapwings, they have a curious defence mechanism which I saw later on that day on the plain as I was returning.  Instead of flying away, the wirebird would run in an agitated manner, one wing held out from the body as if it were injured.  It would continue to do this for quite some distance before suddenly becoming fit and healthy again and flying back to its original position.  They use this ploy to distract any potential predator away from their nests which, since there are no trees or shrubs, has to be on the ground.

On the RMS – The view beyond the guard rail

Only once on 6 trips on the RMS did I ever see another ship, though.  I was in the main lounge reading late one afternoon when someone came in and started staring out the window.  I asked what was up and he replied by pointing.  I went over to take a look but it was way off in the distance, so I hurried up to the promenade deck to find most of the ship’s passengers leaning over the guard rail on the starboard side.  How could something as simple as this become the focus of everyone’s attention?  Obvious – because there was so little else to do!


All at sea

Now I may have built this up to much  but the ship was not close – in fact it was only because it had three tall derricks that we could see it at all – the bulk of the ship was below the horizon.  It was heading in the other direction so we only had its company for about 15 minutes before it was lost to us forever.  I spoke with one of the crew saying about how this had been the first time I had seen another ship on any voyage.  I got a travel weary reply that yes we are off the main shipping routes but you do see ships from time to time.  The bridge will always try and make contact to get information from them, mainly about the weather and sea conditions but there had been some pirate activity in some parts and it was always good to know the way was clear – particularly at night.  I wondered what the little RMS looked like from a distance.  It had the appearance of a small provincial ferry at the back, and a coaster at the front.  Apart from its distinctive yellow funnel it was a very ordinary looking ship, but to see it from a distance plying through the deep ocean waters would always be a bit of a surprise, I surmised.

There was very little other activity to look at but most people were still fascinated by the rolling of the sea and the spray, the ever changing cloudscapes, and especially the dramatic sunrises and sunsets.  Seeing wildlife was a matter of chance.  Although dolphins were common round Ascension and St Helena themselves, you rarely saw them out here – the crew would report if there  were some chasing the bow wave.  The odd whale might breach way off but I never saw them.  One dull morning I went for a blow around the promenade deck.  About 100m out from the boat, a large tern was struggling in the wind.  We were about mid way between the islands and I wondered what had blown him so far off course and all alone out here.  You could see by his flight pattern that he was utterly exhausted.  I thought he might try for the ship but despite coming close by he flew overhead and continued on in a westward direction.  That way, his nearest land would be Brazil – over 1000 miles away.  Did he ever make it?

One species that made a regular appearance was the flying fish.  I could sit on deck for ages watching them.  I imagine it was the noise and wake of the ship that scared them but there may have been predators below.  A shoal would emerge from the water, flick their wings modified from fins as wide as they could and glide two three wave crests away.  If they caught the right breeze they must have been transported a couple of hundred metres in one flight.  It was almost as if they were catching thermals in the water, or maybe just supreme knowledge of their abilities, but they would be seemingly about to hit the water when they would pitch upwards again and continue their gliding for another ten seconds.